Food labelling: the focus shifts from calories to climate

19 March 2021, 09:32 AM
  • The call for labelling that not only tells us what a product contains, but also what it costs the planet to make it, is gaining momentum, writes Emilien Hoet, head of ClimatePartner UK
Food labelling: the focus shifts from calories to climate

In the age of climate change activism, brands are now coming under greater scrutiny for their contribution to the climate emergency, with food and beverage front and centre of the debate.

Food production is responsible for one quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with the meat and dairy industry responsible for approximately 14.5% of this. Food packaging accounts for a further estimated 5% of the energy used in the lifecycle of a food product making it a significant source of GHG emissions.

Behavioural change key to combating food industry emissions

While most activity in the UK to reduce these emissions has focused on technological solutions to deliver greater energy efficiencies and increased use of renewable energy sources, global food production, processing and transportation is highly complex so this can only have a limited impact on the GHGs associated with our diets.

We must turn our attention to the question of how we can ensure the food industry and consumers engage in behavioural change to reduce consumption of those foods that cause the greatest environmental impact. Economic studies have looked at the merits of market-based initiatives, such as carbon taxes on food products, to influence demand. However these are not without their challenges and most recently the UK government has shelved plans, at least for the foreseeable future, to introduce such a levy with no other formal proposals on offer to deal with the issue.

Increasingly, social scientists, climate activists and certain government bodies have been calling for more behavioural interventions to influence food purchasing decisions, including carbon labelling on food packaging.

Defra advocated a social marketing approach towards behavioural change as far back as 2008 and the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee concluded in their report, Environmental Labelling, that “carbon labelling is crucially important,” in 2009. However, today, consumers still have no broad based means by which to compare food product credentials, or the companies that produce them.

Nevertheless, the call for labelling that not only tells us what a product contains, but what it costs the planet to make it, is gaining momentum. And finer foods are just as likely to be in the sights of those advocating the move.

Production of food items such as low volume specialist cheeses or wine may not appear to make a significant contribution to carbon emissions, but when aggregated as part of the food industry’s contribution overall, their impact is not immaterial. 

As an example, while the carbon footprint of wine from the vineyard is relatively low, its bottling and transportation footprint tells another story. To put this into perspective, when New Zealand brand, Mobius Marlborough – the first wine producer to display carbon footprint labelling – calculated the equivalent CO2 per bottle, this was 140g CO2 within New Zealand, 190g CO2 for Australia, but a staggering 190g per glass for the UK, equivalent to a 5km car journey.

Consumer awareness

In research amongst European consumers undertaken in January by ClimatePartner, half of respondents agreed that the carbon emissions of a product are a factor in their purchasing decision, and 74% regard ClimatePartner’s own climate-neutral label as a decision-making aid when shopping. 40% also recognised the label as an indication that the company responsible for the product is undertaking broader activities to mitigate their climate impact. 

However, carbon labelling across all food and drink categories is a big undertaking, and further work needs to be done to communicate to the public at large the issues at stake and the importance of such an initiative.

Originally published in 2011 and updated in 2019, an often cited study suggests that a major obstacle to diet change is consumers’ under-estimation of the environmental impacts of different types of food, creating a “blind spot” when making purchasing choices.

But when factors contributing to a carbon footprint go well beyond the often publicised methane emissions from cows, to include everything from deforestation to artificially created grazing land to refrigeration and transportation of food still depending heavily on fossil fuels, it is easy to see how many consumers won’t make the transition without access to independently verified information to empower them towards more sustainable choices.

In the UK, those businesses undertaking carbon labelling are currently doing so on a voluntary basis, encouraged by consumer demand, investors are increasingly looking to limit risk in relation to climate, and what companies themselves see as a potential competitive advantage. But legislation requiring action may not be far away.

What the future holds for carbon labelling

The calculation of the carbon footprint of food items is no simple undertaking. Apart from the rigorous collection of reliable data across all aspects of a food’s supply chain, there are technical issues in relation to measurement that need addressing. Unequivocal and universal standards are urgently needed to prevent food manufacturers misleading consumers about its products’ true carbon footprint.

Results from consumer studies around carbon labelling indicate that there is a lack of understanding as to the extent our food choices are impacting the environment and the carbon footprint for which they are responsible. However, they also show that consumers are open to becoming more informed and, in the main, would like to make food purchasing decisions which contribute to limiting climate change. But they need to be empowered to do so.

Image: Courtesy of ClimatePartner

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